An Urban Pandemic: How COVID-19 Can Help Redesign Our Cities

The pandemic has been an eye-opener for the world's urban centers, and could be an opportunity to make lasting changes.

People wearing face masks wait in line to enter a grocery store in Barcelona, Spain.
People wearing face masks wait in line to enter a grocery store in Barcelona, Spain.
Lucas Delfino


BUENOS AIRES — Coronavirus is an illness typical of the 21st century. It is global, travels fast, readily contagious and indiscriminate. It is a pandemic in keeping with our time, and here to remind us how close we all are in a hyperconnected world. Nothing is far, not even China.

Everything began, as we know, in the city of Wuhan. Then came propagation through other big cities, the Western press reported. Slowly, city living and related agglomerations of people came to be viewed with distrust. Demographic concentration, public spaces, public transport and traffic — all basic elements of city life — have become tools of contagion. Before the virus, our efforts were concentrated on planning social interaction. Now we're having to organize isolation.

The collective sentiment, a cornerstone of cities, is the virus's first victim. As a study published in the British review The Lancet has shown, the impulse to be outgoing has been replaced with harmful reactions like anxiety, anger and fear. "Induced" solitude is affecting us negatively. We were not born to be confined, and cities are a reminder of that. About 9,000 years ago, with the foundation of the first city in what is today Turkey, humans decided to have neighbors.

But we can also learn from difficult hours, and turn problems into opportunities. We may pass from pain to experience, and when the virus becomes a thing of the past, this will be a crucial challenge in policymaking. What lessons did COVID-19 leave us? That is when we shall, perhaps, see the difference between a ruler and a statesman.

We were not born to be confined, and cities are a reminder of that.

There is a lot of revision to do, in the "confined" space that is politics. The environment, for example. The Facebook group Venezia Pulita shows how Venetian canal waters have changed since quarantine began. Clear water, fish everywhere, wading swans and clear skies. These are some of the new postcards from Venice.

Something similar has happened in Beijing, where thanks to reduced factory activity, there is less smog, the sky is more visible and residents can breathe cleaner air. New York too: With less car traffic, birds can be heard in every corner. All of this in just 10 to 15 days without people driving around.

Another interesting aspect to consider is technology. Confinement has forced us to suddenly become familiar with terms like telecommuting. There is an automatic correlation in all cities, because as contagions increase, firms become more determined to have their staff work from home. This raises questions such as: How can a city reorganize itself if it decompresses the standard work and commute format? Hypothetically, what would happen if half the 3.5 million people who drive into Buenos Aires could work at home?

Remember, in this century nothing is far.

Healthcare is an unavoidable issue in this context. Every year, cities have to manage endemic, epidemic and pandemic events without proper hospitals. Coordination with national and provincial governments make up for this shortfall to some extent, but that means delayed decision-making that can leave vulnerable sectors without room for maneuver.


Security guards watching over a closed market in Dhaka, Bangladesh, during the lockdown. — Photo:​ Zakir Hossain Chowdhury

We need to speed up the paperwork, and remove as many institutional obstacles as possible. Security has the same dilemma: Highly complex problems like drug trafficking are being tackled with outdated means and strategies. The city of Rosario has already had 62 criminal deaths this year. No quarantine will stop organized crime.

The pandemic is revealing many of the fallacies of modern living. The speed of globalization demands a direction, fast, and laissez faire will no longer do. We need politicians with a proactive role, sensitivity and vision, and rulers that combine the market's energies with the state's capabilities and the rights of citizens.

In many cases across the world it was mayors who took the initiative with more drastic decisions, ahead of their national governments. This happened here, with Martín Yeza (Pinamar), Horacio Rodríguez Larreta (Buenos Aires) and Mariano Campero (Yerba Buena). These were examples of leaders who set the pace and were brave in protecting their communities through basic, protective measures like closing shops, traffic restrictions and organizing deliveries.

Without denying the demographic, environmental and economic challenges facing mega-cities like Mexico City, Sao Paulo and Tokyo, we need to reconsider our perspective on reality. Our habit is to think of solutions as a top-down thing. But this may be an opportunity to reverse the dynamic and take fate into our own hands — at the local level. As the self-schooled critic of cities Jane Jacobs observed, perhaps small should be the future.

*Delfino is the undersecretary for federal urban cooperation in the Buenos Aires city government.

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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